Sharknado – The Spinning Terror

Brendan tried to avoid the treacherous waters, but no luck, they came to land to find him.  

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Jaws is correctly revered as a classic of the disaster/horror movie genre and rightly credited as the first high concept blockbuster movie. Jaws’ singular premise – a giant monster shark – that neatly translated into one single marketing image, and transformed the way in which films were made and sold in Hollywood to this day.

No one who was certifiably sane would say that Sharknado is destined to have the same homunculus impact on the world of modern filmmaking. However, it is undoubtedly a high concept project (sharks meet tornadoes), it is undoubtedly a disaster film and it has undoubtedly achieved a new and very modern type of success with contemporary audiences.

After amassing several million views on YouTube for it’s trailer, Sharknado’s premier on the Syfy channel accomplished something unprecedented for a made for TV movie by becoming a trending topic on Twitter. Websites and blogs have since collated the best and most amusing of Sharknado’s tweets, while the wave of social media interest in the film secured a limited US theatrical run, again another first for a “Syfy original film”.

Sharknado is a slick example of how low budget filmmaking can leverage social media platforms to generate positive word of mouth and reach new, incremental audiences. The problem for some critics with Sharknado, however, is the nature of the film itself.

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The premise of Sharknado doesn’t require much in the way of thought or explanation. A waterspout brings all manner of man eating sharks in-land to downtown LA, where they wreak all kind of havoc on an assorted cast of b-movie actors. Interestingly this ensemble includes the semi-credible presence of John Heard, he of The Sopranos (Ed: or for our purposes – Cutter’s Way, CHUD and Cat People etc)  and other far more legitimate screen roles. One can only assume John badly needs a paycheck right now.

It is willfully silly, escapist nonsense that pays homage to a host of cheesy pop culture references. The issue and where Sharknado proves to be so divisive, is that it is a project that is designed to be mocked. Unlike say the efforts of Ed Wood or Tommy Wiseau or even some of the movies distributed by Lloyd Kaufman, the makers of Sharknado certainly have no artistic hubris about the highfalutin merit of their work.

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That’s not to say Sharknado is a bad film as such. For my sins I actually enjoyed it. Honest. Production values are better than expected, pacing and narrative move quickly enough and among its truly memorable sequences is the sight of Ian Ziering first being swallowed whole by a badly rendered, flying CGI shark only to then see him cut himself out with a chainsaw and simultaneously rescue his love interest (Cassie Scerbo) from inside the same creature! Wow. Intense.

Sharknado is terrible, self consciously cheesy, deliberately camp fun brought to life purely for the commercial gain of the backers and producers at the Syfi channel. It’s safe to say that with Sharknado, the sharks of this film are not just limited to those in front of the camera lens.

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Sharknado is out on 7th October

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Are we there yet…? The Last Exorcism: Part II

The ever daring Brendan Patterson, once again dives into the unknown, braving the twisted demons of The Last Exorcism: Part II.  

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I’ve not seen the original Last Exorcism but in the research that I conducted before settling down to watch its absurdly entitled sequel, I learned that it took a “new” spin on the now hackneyed exorcism sub-genre by using the now hackneyed “found footage” approach to filmmaking.

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Audiences expecting the same for Part 2 are going to be disappointed. The sequel abandons any such similar aesthetic traits, opting for a far more conventional, classic narrative setting and structure. Opening credits notwithstanding, which are melange of home movies, news reports and other gumpf which allude to the first entry in this ongoing movie franchise.

It’s not just the same stylistic composition that the Last Exorcism Part II ejects, however, as for the next 90 minutes any sense of continuity from the original film are gone too. Instead we pick up with sole survivor Nell (Ashley Bell) trying to remember just what in the name of Lord Satan happened in the first film while putting her life back together in some hick town in the US.

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The really bad news for Nell is that Beelzebub (aka Abalam) is back and has all manner of horrid back bending, spine cracking contortionism and general evil soul-sucking possession in mind for her all over again. Plus a few new tricks up his old demonic sleeve.

The interminably dull build up to the satanic denouement of the Last Exorcism Part II includes some especially below par PG13 related scares, even in what is billed as its “uncut extended edition” on home dvd and bluray.

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Obviously I’m taking these out of context but they include: the terror of a talking vacuum cleaner, the sight of Nell being harassed by a living statue performer during a costume ball (yikes!), a trip to the zoo where an irate gorilla flings a tyre in her general direction and a nuisance dog that woofs loudly on her way to work as a chambermaid. Yes things really get that “scaremongus”.

Overall, LEP2 feels distinctly less like The Exorcist or any of the slew of imitators and is more reminiscent of Carnival of Souls where poor, doomed Candace Hilligoss wanders seemingly out of step with the world around her while menaced by sinister dark forces. But whereas Herk Harvey’s 1962 masterpiece had atmosphere in abundance, Last Exorcism Part II feels bland, contrived and ultimately does little to create any emotional empathy for its tortured female protagonist.

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The two things I dislike most about this movie are:

1) It might actually play quite well to some God fearing Americans, somewhere in the Bible Belt who may or may not believe in the efficacy of exorcisms and their own ability and need to perform one on a family member, friend or pet animal

2) The anti-climactic finale where Nell is transmogrified into a possessed Carrie clone while simultaneously paving the way presumably for The Last Exorcism Part 3. Yet another sequel in this franchise? Now that is a truly ridiculous and actually quite frightening proposition.

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Last Exorcism: Part II is out on Monday, 30th September

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His Puppet Master’s Voice


Lets get one thing straight. If you’ve been waiting for the definitive version of Puppet Master; if you’ve had periods in life, or sleepless nights where you’ve asked yourself: “When will an improved version of the first instalment in the Puppet Master franchise be made publicly available? In high definition and struck from the original 35mm print with DTS HD master audio?” then your wait is over.

For regular folk, or those who were born after 1990 and are perhaps unfamiliar with the early work of Charles Band, then the materialization of a new Puppet Master Blu-ray from 88 Films may not exactly set the pulse racing. Simply put, it’s the best ever version of a not exactly great film.

The plot synopsis can be summarized as follows: a group of psychics gather in an abandoned hotel where they are executed, one by one, by supernaturally possessed puppets.

Said psychics include Paul Le Mat – he has big 80’s hair, a chubby face with slightly confused expression and reoccurring nightmares of slugs appearing on his guts and eating him.

Irene Miracle is a fairground fortune teller with the unwavering knack of foreseeing violent death (Nb. she tells the fortune of Barbara Crampton who does not for once expose her considerable assets in this film).

And then there’s Matt Roe and Kathryn O’Reilly;two sexy scientists who do – ahem – psychic sex research experiments. Worth mentioning is that Matt Roe has a balding head and a ponytail and still this does not seem to put his missus off when it comes to the sex research stuff. Interesting …

All four are friends and are reunited when a mutual acquaintance invites them to traipse over to the Bodega Bay Inn to be slaughtered by marionettes, who as you might guess, are the real stars of a movie called “Puppet Master”.

Each puppet has a different special attribute, deployed with varying degrees of aplombwhen it comes to bumping off the largely unsympathetic cast. Ms. Leech regurgitates leeches, Blade has blades on his hands, Tunneler has a revolving drill-bit on the top of his head, Pin Head endowed with disproportionately big fists and finally, Jester has a sinister, revolving face and is arguably a bit shit.

What is striking about watching Puppet Master today, some twenty years plus since it fist arrived on VHS under the Full Moon label, is just how slow placed the bloody thing is. It takes an eternity to get going. There are endless dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream sequences that cripple the film’s pacing.

Also there’s the gore. It now looks terribly restrained and not very well executed, despite what other reviewers claim on the interweb and elsewhere.

This seems all the more surprising considering Charles Band’s (Puppet Master’s producer, co-writer etc. etc. etc.) former association with Empire Movies and the no-holds barred, Grand Guignol of ReAnimator and From Beyond.

But then again, thinking about it, maybeit’s not entirely unsurprising considering the flood of sewage Charles would release unbidden on home VHS throughout the 90s and beyond (Meridian anyone?) courtesy of Full Moon Entertainment.

To my jaded eyes Puppet Master isn’t all bad news though. What I did rate was Sergio Salvati’s cinematography, which holds up remarkably well, channeling the best of his collaboration with Lucio Fulci and some of the baroque “dreamy” stuff he created in those films, in amongst characters having their brains drilled out and what not.

Also, the puppet Blade looks like Klaus Kinski, who I like. I really like in fact.

And there’s also a high content of sex in Puppet Master (which I don’t mind), to be expected perhaps considering the presence of the aforementioned sex scientist characters. Examples include some heaving breasts on display along with a soft core, non-erotic bondage sex scene, and a random moment where a woman pleasures herself in the bath and so on.

Overall, if you’ve an interest in puppets and/or dolls of any description you may like this film. Also, Puppet Master does hold a place in the pantheon of 80’s slasher movies, albeit a minor one. For my money though, the best of all scary puppet movies remains Dead of Night, even though it contains nothing as disturbing as Matt Roe’s ponytail.

Editor: This arrived in the in box with the following disclaimer – despite what I’ve written I did actually enjoy catching up with it again (probably for all the wrong reasons) – One, which, I happen to totally agree with.

Puppet Master is available now from 88Films, who are currently working their way through Full Moon’s catalogue.

A Storm from the East

A child born with one purpose, vengeance.
Emotionless, robotic, Yuki surges forward, silently.
To avenge her family.

Like the Eastern Pam Grier, Meiko Kaji spent much of the 70s kicking ass and leaving the collecting of names to those who could be bothered.

Whether she was girl bossing it in the Stray Cat Rock series, in lockdown as Female Convict 701 or suffering from a Blind Woman’s Curse, Meiko was turning heads and cranking out a steady stream of Girls Take No Shit style exploitation.
Ostensibly much of her output falls under the Pinky Violence banner, that little tiny sub genre of the Japanese Pink films, Pink films being Japan’s answer to softcore porn (oversimplification alert). Pinky Violence films were an offshoot, mainly girl gang exploitation or Sukeban. Lots of rape and shirts being ripped off in breast exposing ways. The initial intention was to grab a gap in the market, by combining the Yakuza and Pink genre’s into one, and getting the teenage boys into the cinema. Combining sex and violence, as one would expect, turned out to be quite a successful move.

At the same time as the Yakuza films there were the Chanbura films, period pieces, Samurai films to you and me. Films like Zatoichi, The Blind Swordsman, or the iconic, Lone Wolf and Cub, better known as the infamous Shogun Assassin, it was here that fountains of blood became the norm. Shogun Assassin was, of course a Western invention, a mashup of the “best bits” of Lone Wolf, tailored for the West. If you want to work your way to the more over the top end of things you can thrown in some Hanzo for added penis bashing and orgasmic torture achieved through rape, or Bohachi for breast filled insanity.

It was only a matter of time before the Pinky Violence crept into the Samurai genre, creating a miniscule sub genre of PV, starting with Female Demon Ohyaku. But Meiko Kaji herself starred in three of these PV tinged Chanbura, Lady Snowblood 1 & 2 and the outstanding Blind Woman’s Curse. Kaji’s genre companion was Reiko Ike, like Kaji, she too had her start in Sukeban, before starring in PV classic Sex and Fury alongside Swedish sleaze star Christina Lindberg, who delivers the single worst performance ever committed to film (a Swedish hardcore porn star in a Japanese film playing an English assassin).

While Ike typifies the hard as nails girl you’d expect to be wielding a flick knife, someone you’d not want to meet in a dark alley. Her stocky build and steely eyes lent themselves perfectly to the girl gang films. It was Kaji, whose grace and beauty, makes the silent assassins of Sasorai of the Female Convict series and Yuki of Lady Snowblood so deadly and terrifying.
Whether she’s running down the street with a dismembered hand cuffed to her own or calmly walking walking down a flight of stairs as she slashes her way through 15 armed men of the secret police, she cuts a striking image of a strong and defiant woman.
Lady Snowblood itself isn’t quite Pinky Violence, often unfairly thrown into that genre, it’s lacking in the Pink, but brimming with the Violence. At it’s base, Snowblood is pure exploitation, like it’s namesake, it’s on an almost single minded mission to paint the screen crimson and show off the gorgeous actress.

You can easily sell this film by waffling on about how it was a heavy influence on Kill Bill, but you shouldn’t need too, it’s a gem of a film that will have you locked in from the opening sequence, falling snow and spraying blood, it’s beauty and grace sets it in a league of it’s own.

 

Shogun Assassin, Hanzo the Razor and the Female Convict Scorpion Series are available through Eureka.

Lady Snowblood 1 & 2 are out on 24th Sept on Bluray and DVD from Arrow. Zatoichi is also available from Arrow.

Sex and Fury is available from Fabulous Films.

SILENT RUNNING: Blu-ray review

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It’s somewhat unlikely that SILENT RUNNING should arrive on Blu-ray with something akin to the fanfare of a returning hero, as it’s always been a film that’s existed in the shadow of its bigger, more serious brother, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. But thanks to some pretty high profile name-checking from some of this generation’s most successful and prominent sci-fi film-makers (Andrew Stanton and Duncan Jones to name two) and a consistent and heartfelt championing from Mark Kermode (who argues that the film is actually superior to the more traditionally critically-vaunted 2001) means that SILENT RUNNING is now slowly achieving the kind of attention from critics and audiences that its fervent supporters have always argued it should.
Set in a not-so distant future where rising temperatures have led to the extinction of all plant life on earth, the film takes place on the Valley Forge, an enormous space freighter where the remainder of Earth’s forests are being held in bio-domes. The Valley Forge is populated by a skeleton crew of four, the majority of whom are bored rigid and eager to return home. The exception is Lowell Freeman (Bruce Dern), the man tasked with maintaining the forests – highly strung and with an extremely close bond to plants and nature, Freeman believes religiously in the importance of his work, and fervently anticipates the day when the forests can be returned to Earth and replanted.
When the order comes through from high command to destroy the forests in a cost-cutting measure, Freeman snaps, and risks everything in order to keep man’s last links to nature alive, enlisting along the way as help three adorable service robots, nicknamed Hewey, Dewey, and Louie.
Comparisons with 2001 are always going to be inescapable for SILENT RUNNING – partly because they’re two of the most high profile ‘space’ science fiction movies ever made, released within a couple of years of one another – but mainly because of the shared involvement of Douglas Trumbull. Trumbull provided the groundbreaking visual effects in Kubrick’s film, whereas on SILENT RUNNING he was also responsible for script and directing duties.
Trumbull himself has noted that SILENT RUNNING was in effect conceived as a rejoinder 2001’s cold, clinical vision of science fiction, and Trumbull’s film is likely to surprise first-time viewers with its earnest, unabashed sentimentality. There is a child-like quality about the whole film – about Hewey, Dewey and Louie, about Freeman’s idealism, even the way the crew race around on those fun-looking modified go-karts – and it’s telling that SILENT RUNNING’s biggest fans are those who saw the film at a young age. Those of us cynical adults who have grown up on ALIEN, MOON, SUNSHINE and the DEAD SPACE video games and, yes, even 2001 might find SILENT RUNNING’s  PG rated version of space madness a little toothless and insubstantial, and the scenes of Freeman making friends with the robots somewhat mawkish, particularly in conjuction with Joan Baez’s hippy-dippy songs, which are just as likely to make you want to put your foot through the TV as enchant you.
As a story, ultimately SILENT RUNNING doesn’t really hang together – the dialogue is occasionally overwrought, and there are some pretty huge plot holes (how can someone be aware of Duck Tales yet not the fact that plants need sunlight?). There are also big pacing problems – there are large swathes of the film where very little happens, and while SILENT RUNNING certainly wouldn’t benefit from shoe-horning in of an action sequence, there are a few patience testing moments and the film feels a lot longer than its modest 90 minute running time.
Despite its many flaws, there’s lots to love about SILENT RUNNING. Firstly there’s Bruce Dern’s incredible performance as Freeman, all twitching intensity and wild-eyed prophesising. He looks and sounds like someone who would collar you at a Grateful Dead concert to tell you about The Man putting fluoride in the water supply, and as such is unique in the history of cinematic spacemen. When asked about the genesis of the character Trumbull brilliantly said (I’m paraphrasing here) “Hey, there’ll be weird people in the future too.”
The reason that SILENT RUNNING has proved so enduring, however, is certainly down to it’s world, conceived entirely with ingenious practical effects before the advent of CGI, and still standing up to scrutiny today. While 2001 may be regarded as the better film, there’s definitely a case for SILENT RUNNING being the more influential, particulary in the realm of hard science fiction. The Valley Forge seems like an early prototype for the Nostromo; Wall-E’s whole aesthetic borrows heavily from the whole film, as well as Wall-E himself being clearly descended from Huey, Dewey and Louie, not to mention R2-D2; and the bored spaceman railing against the man was replicated to great effect in MOON. And we may never have seen RED DWARF or MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 if it didn’t have the template of robots and humans awkwardly bonding on a spaceship to replicate.
 
The ingenuity that went into the design of the ‘miniatures’ (the Valley Forge model was 26 feet long), the sets and particularly the robots (in a genius move, the robots were portrayed by double amputees, giving the machines a real tactile weight and personality) mean that the world of SILENT RUNNING is still as exotic, realised and convincing as it was 40 (!) years ago. There’s no denying that while some moments are overwrought the film does still pack quite an emotional punch, with the plight of Freeman and the robots and the ultimate fate of the Valley Forge being genuinely moving and thought-provoking. There’s no doubting that Trumbull is heartfelt about his film and its ‘message’, and for all its meandering he still crafts a powerful and heartbreaking final shot that is one of the most memorable in all of science fiction.
It’s also great to see a sci-fi film that is so colourful – so often sci-fi has a washed-out, sterile palette, but SILENT RUNNING is rendered in vibrant, colourful detail, with the primary colours of the Valley Forge rec room and Freeman’s space suit, alongside the lush greens of the forest really brought out by Masters of Cinema’s magnificent, razor-sharp transfer.
The Blu-ray represents another winning effort for Eureka and the Masters of Cinema label, with benchmark sound and picture quality that is at very least the best the film has looked since its original 35mm release. Also included is a fascinating, 60 minute documentary on the making of the film from 1972, alongside substantial interviews and a commentary with the always engaging Trumbull and Dern. There’s also a glossy 48-page booklet packed with photos, interviews and concept artwork, rounding out an extremely impressive release of a flawed yet seminal film. 
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